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Cheetos Lip Balm & More Bizarre Brand Extensions

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When I heard about the new Burger King Whopper Bar, my immediate thought was that it wouldn't be the first place I'd go for a cocktail. Then I read they won't be serving alcohol, and I knew I wouldn't be going to a Whopper Bar any time soon. This also reminded me of Burger King's other recent brand extension "“ a new fragrance called Flame by BK. This meat perfume was obviously a promotional stunt designed to sell more burgers, but in general, corporate brand extensions are serious attempts to grow a brand beyond its initial range of products. Sometimes the tactic works, and other times it just leads to some good comedy.

1. Bic Underwear

We first knew them as the company that made very reliable writing instruments. Then Bic got into the disposable lighter and razor market, and we still bought their products. But we had to draw the line somewhere (get it?!), and the idea of disposable underwear just wasn't that appealing.

2. Cheetos Lip Balm

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Several brands have dipped into the lip balm product category. The basic rule is, 'if it tastes good, why not smear it on your face?' But I don't think works with cheese products. Frito-Lay got in the game in 2005 when they launched Cheetos lip balm. Now maybe it was a great way to experience the delicious joy that is Cheetos, with only a fraction of the calories, but the dozens of negative reviews have convinced me that it was an idea ahead of its time. One thing is certain -- I really want some Cheetos right now.

3. Lifesavers Soda

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Lifesavers Soda was introduced back in the 80s, and was off the shelves not too long after that. It came in five flavors, and apparently did well in taste tests before the launch. But the name just didn't work with the product, as consumers just weren't looking for a candy they could drink.

4. Colgate Kitchen Entrees

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Maybe it's me, but thinking of the taste of toothpaste while enjoying my veal scallopini just doesn't seem appetizing. It's no wonder this brand of microwavable dinner entrees didn't last very long. Not even the potential for a dazzling white smile was enough to drive sales.

5. NASCAR romance novels

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Speed Bumps, In the Groove, Hearts Under Caution "“ they should sell millions of copies based on the titles alone. It was November of 2005 when NASCAR signed a licensing deal with Harlequin Enterprises to put out a series of romance novels. The racing organization was growing their female fan base, and romance novels seemed like a good way to continue the trend. The books are still being sold today, so it seems like this brand extension has been fairly successful. And the pit crews always did need something to do while the drivers are on the track, so I guess it makes sense.

6. Hooters MasterCard

hooters-mastercard.jpgAnd this has to be my favorite. I could've gone with Hooters Air, which closed up shop back in 2006, or used the Hooters energy drink for this list. But I went with the Hooters MasterCard for one main reason: I cannot imagine the stones it takes to whip this baby out when making a purchase. Having a business lunch? Let me pay for that with my Hooters Business Card. Taking the family to Great Adventure? No problem, put all four tickets on the Hooters Gold. There should be a website just for the expressions of the people taking the card as payment. Their website says the card is issued by Merrick Bank, so I don't think it's a joke. Who knows, maybe I'll apply for my own. I've always wanted to see how the other half lives.

These last two were covered by former _flosser Ben Smith last summer...

7. Gerber Singles

gerber singlesPicture 74.pngSounds like something out of an April Fool's Day press release—a baby food company releasing a version of its product for adults. Gerber Singles were no joke, though, and small jars containing fruits, vegetables, starters, and desserts appeared on store shelves in 1974. Clearly it wasn't a good idea. Customers had no interest in eating Creamed Beef out of a baby food jar, and the name of the product, "Singles" couldn't have helped either. As Business 2.0's Susan Casey said, "they might as well have called it "˜I Live Alone and Eat My Meals From a Jar.'"

8. Smith & Wesson Mountain Bikes

Picture 55.pngSmith & Wesson is the largest handgun manufacturer in the United States, and have even made "this home protected by a Smith & Wesson security system" claims true with the release of a security system of sorts. Smart move. A less savvy extension? Introducing a mountain bike. First marketed to police officers, the bikes are now available to all consumers anxious to get their hands on a bike bearing the name of their favorite gun company. And the company is offering a big incentive: customers who add a handgun or set of handcuffs onto their bike purchase won't get charged for shipping and handling.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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